Ciara Buckley offers an analysis of the homoerotic subtext behind the world’s most famous mystery-solving duo, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, and its relation to the recent trend of queerbaiting.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes first shot to critical acclimation in 1887 when Ward Lock & Co published A Study in Scarlet, the earliest appearance of the famed Victorian figure and his sidekick. This historic publication commemorates the introduction of what would become the first in a collection of detective tales, asserting Sherlock Holmes as an iconic figure in English literature ever since.
His sharp critical eye and baffling deductive theories have continued to capture the heart of the general public for years, establishing Sherlock Holmes as a beloved, admired and recognizable symbol of British intellect overseas.
However, it isn’t just the interesting and witty criminal track-downs that have had viewers consistently coming back for more. The timeless nature of these stories has been aided by the profoundly close relationship that Sherlock maintains with his companion and colleague, Dr John Watson.
Generations of readers have accepted the canonical and deeply imbedded friendship of the two main characters, but in recent years, adaptations such as Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, have teased at a different type of relationship that has captured the imagination of fans everywhere. BBC’s Sherlock projected an updated version of the classic: the characters now live in the twenty first century, surrounded by modern technological devices, but most importantly they now exist in a society that promotes a freedom of sexuality and expression that would have been shunned one hundred years ago.
As such, the intensive interpretation of a relentlessly loyal, and sometimes borderline possessive Dr John Watson, complimented by the often socially inept but intellectually uncommon portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, has led many to question the real nature of the two men’s relationship.
It certainly isn’t difficult to see why public debate has emerged surrounding a possible romantic entanglement between the two. The episodes are packed with lingering, longing glances and suggestive dialogue, all of which leads to fans insisting that there is more going down in Baker Street than a good crime case. The show itself has explored and taunted the possibility, but nothing has ever come of it. This has motivated a wide range of indignant fans to take to the internet in a storm of rage, calling out the series’ cast and creators for their blatant indulgence in queerbaiting.
The term “queerbaiting” has gained momentum in recent years thanks to the emergence of the internet fandom community, and has been explicitly linked to Sherlock on several occasions. Queerbaiting implies the purposeful suggestion of a same-sex relationship between leading characters in a series with the purpose of attracting an LGBTQ+ audience. These relationships insinuate a level of romantic establishment which is, more often than not, berated and joked about by surrounding characters. This is certainly true for Sherlock, as characters’ commentary on the couple’s relationship status is orchestrated to a rather questionable, and often problematic, comedic effect.
In a period where it has become significantly harder to gather a substantial television audience than in the past, that there is an emerging absence of morality within marketing departments when trying to secure a larger audience. This blatant abuse of conduct was particularly clear in the most recent Sherlock trailer, which promoted the fourth series of the show. The clip toys with the possibility of Holmes finally declaring his undying love for his flatmate; however, when the series finally did air, this was revealed to be a complete deception, illustrating perfectly the lack of delicacy and care that marketing companies employ when orchestrating content that will be received by the public.
In a recent interview with the writers, co-creator Mark Gatiss stated that his intentions for the characters have never been anything but platonic. This is quite a reductive statement, seeing as he has gone to call fans “entitled” in yearning for a theme that he does not wish to explore. The problem, however, lies in the execution of this “platonic” relationship. Brilliantly crafted performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have reasonably led people to believe more than – what it appears – the writers desired to project. Representation is a serious issue and it is something that the writers have ultimately trivialised.
It is incredibly disconcerting to witness show creators continue to string along an already highly-targeted community within society. Their attempts at dampening a fire they have already set has resulted in undermining the voices that scream for fulfillment. These people see themselves reflected in the characters that they watch. The idea that a romance between Holmes and Watson subverts an established friendship is not only ridiculous, but discriminatory. Fans ask that writers correct this glaring double standard, vociferating in an untamed fury that they no longer be demonised for craving what Hollywood has utilized for years in elevating heterosexual couples. The ambiguity remains in a desperate need of extinction.
There comes a point when ‘playfully exploring a theme’ becomes the dangling of a diamond over fans’ heads, only to yank it away at each season finale.
While the future of the show remains murky and uncertain due to a combination of low ratings and clashing scheduling demands of principle actors, it is crucial that a returning season either deconstructs the ambiguity surrounding two characters that are locked in one another’s endless orbit in a way that is not strictly platonic, or quit using homoeroticism as a crutch to keep people tuned in: at this point in time, the media that we ingest, including Sherlock, can no longer have it both ways.